Czech Culture & Adaptation

Observing Czech elections

April 23, 2010
Czech politics and voting

Photo by rawf8/

Corruption, empty promises and negative billboards

The Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections are scheduled for the end of next month, but the political atmosphere in the Czech Republic, at least to a non-Czech like me, is surprisingly devoid of the typical pre-election buzz that I know from the US. Admittedly, we don’t get a Czech newspaper like Mladá Fronta DNES or Hospodářské noviny at home, and since I’m not working outside the home, I don’t have the experience of listening to colleagues share their political views in a business environment. So there might be more political water cooler chats happening that I’m isolated from. However, there is no doubt that politicians are campaigning, their messages are hard to miss, but whether ordinary people are listening, isn’t clear to me.

There is one blatant form of campaigning that’s quite widespread, the practice of billboard campaigning. Since it seems most Czechs feel the upcoming elections aren’t likely to change the current political atmosphere significantly, the billboard campaign, mainly led by the left-of-center Social Democratic party (ČSSD), may be an attempt to draw the debate to public attention by using simplified, idealized statements, supposedly voiced by ordinary citizens from different age brackets. The ČSSD billboards promise to grant benefits that every citizen would presumably want: No co-payments at doctors, longer maternity leave, better retirement benefits, and lower energy bills. You name it, the Social Democrats smilingly promise it.

I confess, after viewing a ČSSD ad featuring a pregnant belly and another showing a young family with an infant, I began to formulate positive thoughts about that party in general. It wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of the flip side of the campaign, large anonymous billboards (funded by the right-of-center Civic Democratic ODS party) showing the ČSSD leader Jiří Paroubek making outrageous promises for a socially-dependent state that I began to realize the confrontational spirit in which the billboards had been intended. Some of my favorite billboards show Paroubek surrounded by a background of aliens, saying, “I’ll bring back Elvis” and another featuring him against a backdrop of beer bottles saying, “I’ll get rid of morning hangovers.”

The billboards are so utterly outlandish that I began to take a second-survey of the ČSSD billboards I’d been drawn to initially. Now the actors and their idealistic socialized promises seemed just as inflated and as empty as those depicting Paroubek as a fool. When I thought about the reality of paying a small 30 CZK co-fee for doctors’ visits it seemed ridiculous that I’d question it. Just about as ridiculous as the appearance of Elvis. I wondered how many other Czech citizens would be as naïve as I was and buy into the billboard campaign on either side at face-value.

I assume that most Czechs are more educated about the existing parties’ true nature. Although a few other minority parties, including the Green Party (SZ), the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and the Communist party, also hold seats in the legislature and have played important roles in coalition-forming, still the ODS and ČSSD are the primary contenders on election day.

Curious about this year’s upcoming elections, I asked several of my Czech friends if they were planning to vote, and most said they probably would, even though they weren’t excited about the leadership options in either of the two major parties. One friend declared, “Our politicians are so corrupt and obnoxious that I don’t know who to vote.” Comparing the Czech apathetic attitude toward voting with the pro-voting attitude she witnessed when she was living in the US, she mentioned that corruption she sees here seems to go hand-in-hand with being a “young democracy” and not having moral standards as high as longer-established democracies. She added that Czechs aren’t patriots, except in sports, and that being employed in public service as a politician, policeman, or a soldier doesn’t carry the respect that it warrants in other democracies.

Still the upcoming elections have received more attention than usual, owing largely to the high-profile drama last March when the majority party, ODS, was overthrown in a no-confidence vote during the middle of the country’s EU presidency. Although the practice of kicking a party out of power mid-term is within the bounds of the Czech constitution, the sight of a government in flux didn’t look good from an international perspective, particularly with regard to time-sensitive issues, such as the signing of the Lisbon Treaty or the issue of a radar base in the Czech Republic. I remember reading an account of the overthrow in a Newsweek magazine my mother had brought to Prague, and I was surprised to discover that the stir abroad seemed more significant than here.

From the perspective of a Czech, the “overthrow” was no more than a few parliamentarians from the ODS party switching loyalties to form a majority for the ČSSD party in order to oust the party head, Mirek Topolánek, a process which the ČSSD party had already unsuccessfully attempted four times in the preceding two years. Although the overthrow sounded quite serious to my ears, and the mid-term timing seemed particularly ill-boded, when I talked with Radek about the transition, he said that the government had flip-flopped power like this basically back and forth for several years. After spending a year with a transitional government, Czechs will finally have a chance to elect new officials in the general elections next month.

While I’m oblivious to most of the political talk that goes on here, apart from reading English-language translations of Czech news, it’s been impossible to miss the billboards plastered with campaign promises and propaganda. Compared to the techniques and tactics used by American politicians during recent US elections, using billboards to reach the general public seems a bit antiquated. However, prior to the 2006 legislative elections, when the wives of both leading parties were featured on billboards alongside their husbands, this type of in-your-face mass campaign addressing the average Czech and using politicians’ wives to relate to the public didn’t have much precedence. While an over-exaggerated or negative public billboard campaign seems like a crude way to address the public, I do give the Czechs credit for being direct. I’m not sure whether or not I prefer billboard style over the recent increase in using the Internet and Facebook as campaign tools. I do know that as I continue to live in the Czech Republic I need to step up my efforts to get acquainted with the brand of politics that exists here. Since I’m not a Czech citizen, I won’t be eligible to vote in May, but I’ll certainly be curious to see how the elections turn out.

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